Eventually, my bookshelf got so heavy that it fell from the wall in the middle of the night. The crash jolted me awake. I jerked upright, my eyes straining wide against the dark before I realised what it was. Even then, my heartbeat clattered around the room for a few more moments before reason managed to tame it. I didn’t know what to do: it was the middle of the night and there were books all over the floor.
In the morning, I realised with a kind of morbid awe that the shelf had torn a great chunk of plaster out of the wall with it. It had disintegrated in chunks and lay all over the fallen books like the dusty rubble of a bombed building. The gaping wound left in the wall was cold and stark and incriminating. Its raw edges revealed the flaky layers of paint and plaster beneath, like the different strata of skin and flesh. It felt uncomfortable looking at it, something you shouldn’t be able to see.
It was strange seeing the books fallen like that, all over each other, some splayed, robbed of their dignity, their paper taking on silent creases and crumples. The Road lay open to the floor, its pages buckled beneath it by some Dan Brown book I had had for holiday reading. I felt surprised that nothing had been shaken from them: it was a patchwork pile so rich with people and worlds that it seemed improbable that none of them had been jerked loose in their fall.
“You can never have too many books.” I had been told by more than one person in the last couple of years. Wrong! I thought with some amusement, stood over my literary wreckage like a victorious warlord. The beaten shelf lay exhausted, inverted on the carpet. Evidence to the contrary.
I felt little grief or sympathy. I’ve never been a particular lover of books anyway, but I’d learned that that’s what people like to get you when you’re in hospital for a long time.
Mum was predictably outraged about the damage to the wall. At her exclamation, Morgan appeared in the doorway to see what the drama was.
“Yo.” He said, impressed, taking in the spectacle. I hadn’t touched a thing, having been curiously compelled to preserve it like a crime scene.
“Are you OK?” Mum asked me. I gave her a look and silently indicated the distance between the bed and the wall to signify how could I not be OK. Mum rolled her eyes at me. “You know what I mean.”
Mum’s default setting was still are you OK, even since the empirical proof that I was.
“I can just hang something over it.” I suggested about the wall.
“You can’t just hang something over it.” Mum retorted in exasperation. She shook her head. “I’ll plaster it up. Good thing we have the right paint in the shed still.” She pursed her lips in satisfaction. “Morgan, you help pick up the books. I’ll go and get the Hoover.”
She left the room and I heard her brisk slippered footsteps head down the hall. I sat down cross-legged on the carpet and began to hand up the books one by one to Morgan, who stacked them on the desk. Some of them needed their pages smoothing out, or plaster dust brushed from their covers. The Road wouldn’t sit properly shut anymore, its pages irrevocably kinked. Morgan peered at them doubtfully as he received them.
“Have you really read all of these?” He asked. I passed over a couple of chunky Margaret Attwoods then took a break. There were still two dozen titles distributed all over the floor like scattered words clinging blindly together. It was difficult to know which ones I’d read, actually. Some of the plots were clear in my head; the cover of The Kite Runner conjured up a host of familiar places and characters. Others were more obscured, reminding me of a series of half-remembered dreams or hallucinations, and it was unclear whether they came from the actual story or my own fevered invention. I shrugged at Morgan.
“I could probably get rid of some of them, actually.”
After that, I passed each book to Morgan with a sentence: keep or chuck. He made two piles for me and one for himself. Mum reappeared dragging the Hoover and exiled us.
Morgan drove me to the charity shop to drop off the unwanted books. It was a big box, even without all the ones we’d kept at home, and he sweated as he hauled it inside.
“Having a clear-out?” Asked the young lady at the counter, having a look through the box with one hand, nodding approvingly.
“The bookshelf fell down.” I told her. She looked up at me in surprise and laughed.
I hadn’t often been in here before. Perhaps once or twice in the more distant past in search of a costume for fancy dress, but definitely not for years. It had an unappealing atmosphere of old people, and of unwantedness. I fingered some of the clothes with distaste while Morgan flicked through a stack of records. My nose wrinkled unconsciously. The fabrics felt starchy and over-washed, and in my opinion belonged rather in the bin than on the rack.
“Why do people pay money for this stuff?” I hissed to Morgan on our way out, but he was distracted by a handwritten sign blu-tacked to the inside of the door.
“You’re hiring?” He called back to the girl. She looked up from sticking price stickers on our books with a regretful smile.
“We’re always short on staff. If you know anyone, send them our way.”
Outside the shop, Morgan nudged me significantly. I turned on him in disbelief.
“Did you see it in there?” I demanded with an accusing gesture. “They’re selling garbage.”
“It’s perfect for you.” Morgan insisted cheerfully, following me back in the direction of the car. “You’re unqualified, they’re desperate.”
I clamped my lips shut in protest and climbed into the passenger seat.
“You’re not ill anymore. You don’t have the excuse.” Morgan said it offhandedly, looking over his shoulder and concentrating on reversing out of the parking spot. “We just need to go to B&Q quick to get plaster for Mum.”
I knew he was joking – Morgan was almost always joking – but his words stung unexpectedly. I had scraped my first year of university but not made it through the second. In October all of my friends, like Morgan, would be going into their final year and I was retaking, stuck behind like a kid yelling ‘wait for me!’, unheard or unacknowledged and too small of leg to ever catch up. I should be grateful to be going back at all but instead I felt an ugly, overwhelming sense of injustice.
At B&Q I insisted on pushing the trolley, marching ahead to the Wall and Plaster aisle. I saw Morgan watching me sideways, but ignored him until he got distracted reading the small font on all the different types of plaster.
“They’re all the same!” I snapped eventually. Morgan looked up at me in surprise, then mimed glancing around guiltily, hushing me as if we were in a cathedral.
“Don’t speak like that in the Wall and Plaster aisle.” He hissed. I made a face at him, but couldn’t help smirking despite myself. I pointed at the most standard-looking tub and he dumped a couple into the trolley.
When we got home, Mum insisted on starting on the plaster immediately and I went to help her. Morgan disappeared upstairs to grab his things, then headed out of the front door for hockey. He was always going somewhere. Mum and I added water to the plaster powder in a bucket and mixed until it became thick, then started to smear it into the hole. We layered it in gradually, each time adding notches to the surface for the next layer to cling to. When the wound was full, I smoothed and smoothed the edges with sandpaper until the join with the wall was seamless.
“Good as new.” Said Mum, rocking back on her heels in satisfaction. I looked at it critically: a huge white blemish in the blue wall. It wouldn’t really be good as new until it had had several coats of paint and time to dry in between. Even then, it would never look quite the same as before. Perhaps to a stranger it might, but I would always know about the damage underneath.